The tornado raging over Vir Das’ recent monologue at the Kennedy Centre raises far many uncomfortable questions. For starters, let’s ask ourselves who exactly qualifies as a ‘Good’ Indian? Does speaking up about issues that impact every citizen make a person a ‘Bad’ Indian? Going by the organized campaign to arrest Vir Das for his six minutes of carefully-constructed venting at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, one thing becomes abundantly clear – a section of our hyper-loyal society does not want to hear, see, much less speak about the ugly Indian – ugly in thought, word and deed, the Indian who has assumed the power to appropriate what being an Indian means in today’s times. It was never easy being an Indian – the very notion is riddled with contradictions! Just as Vir Das spoke about the ‘Two Indias’ in his inimitable way, there are others who can identify multiple Indias – each one complete and flawed in itself.
Every Indian has the right to define his/her version of the nation. Every version has validity. There are as many Indias as there are citizens. No single India can win the race to claim supremacy or superiority over the other Indias. We have lived with suspended realities of countless versions of ourselves for centuries. And survived! So why this sudden over-reaction? The “How dare he run down the country on foreign soil” argument is hollow if not downright stupid. We occupy a virtual universe, in which the physical location is rendered irrelevant. Vir Das could as well have addressed Martians on Mars, and his post would still have gone viral.
I am waiting for those who described Vir’s performance as “venomous and inflammatory”, besides being specifically orchestrated to ‘defame India on foreign soil’, to accuse him of being a Pakistani agent who was paid zillions to run down India in America. Soon he will be told to pack his bags and move to the neighbouring country. Because, in today’s India, there is no place for a Vir Das.
At the moment, at least on social media platforms, there seem to be two distinct Indias at war with one another – Vir Das’ and Kangana Ranaut’s. Both individuals represent showbiz albeit in entirely different contexts and disciplines. Both have massive fan support and enjoy cult status in the eyes of their followers. To the best of my knowledge, Vir Das has not aligned himself to any political party/ideology, and cannot be accused of playing power politics for personal gain. At the moment, he is being intimidated and threatened by forces which have gone so far as to want him charged for sedition. Kangana has called him a criminal and accused him of “soft terrorism”. Das has not been sufficiently blessed to receive political patronage, forget protection. Padma Shri Kangana Ranaut (who I genuinely admire on many levels) is privileged enough to get Y-category police protection, paid for by citizens and provided by the State of Maharashtra. Vir Das is a lone ranger who talks directly to his fans through material he writes himself as a hugely successful stand-up comic. Das is from Dehradun, Ms. Ranaut is from Bhambla. In that sense, both function outside the charmed circles of the entertainment industry they belong to. And yes, neither can be accused of benefitting from nepotism. There, the commonalities end.
Ranaut’s strident posts on Instagram are designed to generate heat (refer to her recent ‘”bheekh” comment), Vir ends his impassioned Kennedy Centre monologue appealing for love over hate. He repeatedly calls India “great”. Their respective versions of being patriotic occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. And yes, both qualify as ‘disrupters’ of the status quo. Frankly, we need them both! Enough of smugness, enough of denial, enough of pretending ‘AAL EEEZ WELL’. Hell, it’s not!
Vir’s ‘truths’ have made us cringe. So do Kangana’s. But for entirely different reasons. Padma Shri Kangana’s version of history and the Independence movement challenges all recorded accounts by eminent individuals and attempts to alter the-widely endorsed and popular perception of Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of the Nation. She claims true Independence for India only began in 2014 (errrr – ignore the coincidence!). In a way, Vir insists true loss of Independence also began in 2014! Both are entitled to their viewpoints. Isn’t that what one recognizes as an important arm of a functioning a democracy where every citizen has an equal say?
Vir’s comments on the status of women in India has enraged millions – those virulent critics too have the right to feel enraged. But is he entirely wrong in saying what he did about women’s safety in a country that supposedly ‘worships’ women? Ditto when he spoke about India’s under-30 population having to listen to leaders over 75 who propagate 150-year-old ideas to thunderous applause in the packed-to-the-rafters Kennedy Centre. Were those hired/paid crowds? Tickets to hear Das at the Kennedy Centre were priced between $29 to $59 – not exactly cheap. It was a sell-out performance as was evident from the clips he put out. He was not exulting, nor playing to the galleries. He was merely saying it like it is – but hey, we absolutely cannot stand people who do that and upset our complacency. There was no dramabaazi in his delivery. No ‘stuntbaazi’ either. At the end of those six minutes, most of us felt numb. Why? Because Vir Das had cut too close to the bone – and we were afraid to bleed.
This is the power of a performance that hits a home run thanks to its raw, unfiltered appeal. No sugar coating. The time for ‘mithai’ melas is over.
He walked off the stage with the audience still clapping and clamouring for more. None of this can be manipulated – authenticity wins in the end. His message was incontrovertibly positive as he urged us all to turn our backs on hate and haters. Is that a crime? If it is seen as one, then all that he talked about acquires instant validity. Jai Hind!
(Shobhaa De is an established writer, columnist, opinion shaper and social commentator, who is considered an authority on popular culture.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.